In the 1950s, California became the first state to operate a prison specifically for elderly inmates, but it closed in 1971 when the prison population dipped. Today, old felons are sprinkled throughout the 163,939-inmate system, though federal studies indicate that mainstreaming ultimately costs more than establishing specialized units. Once ahead of the curve, the state now lags in adjusting to demographic realities.
"Something needs to be done now or [California] will lose programs. Parks, schools and highways will suffer due to the cost of the elderly in prison," says Jonathan Turley, founder and executive director of the Project for Older Prisoners, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that develops ways for states to lower geriatric expenses. Turley studied California's elderly inmates and presented his grim findings in front of the state Senate in early 2003. In the past two years, however, there have been no serious proposals to address the issue.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 01, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 126 words Type of Material: Correction
Older prisoners -- A Los Angeles Times Magazine article Sunday about the increasing number of elderly prisoners in California prisons incorrectly stated that former Gov. Gray Davis said that murderers would leave prison during his term only "in a pine box." Although others have characterized his policy in this way, Davis did not actually make this remark. In addition, the article incorrectly stated that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger "is on exactly the same page" as Davis when it comes to releasing murderers. The governor, in fact, has granted parole to 84 convicted murderers whose sentences made them eligible for release, whereas Davis allowed five to be paroled. Also, the article incorrectly referred to the location of the California Institution for Women. It is in Chino, not Corona.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 09, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 84 words Type of Material: Correction
Elderly prisoners -- A June 26 Los Angeles Times Magazine article about the increasing number of elderly prisoners in California said the state's three-strikes law mandates life sentences without parole for certain repeat felons. In fact, on a third-strike felony sentence of at least 25 years to life, the offender is eligible for parole after serving at least 80% of the sentence. Also, the article gave the wrong first name for a prisoner at the California Medical Facility. He is Clyde Hoffman, not Claude.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 13, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Elderly prisoners -- A correction Saturday for a June 26 Los Angeles Times Magazine article about the increasing number of elderly prisoners in California said that on a third-strike felony sentence of at least 25 years to life, the offender is eligible for parole after serving at least 80% of the sentence. In fact, on a third-strike sentence of 25 years to life, the offender is eligible for parole after serving the minimum sentence of 25 years.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 17, 2005 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 3 inches; 113 words Type of Material: Correction
The article "Dying on Our Dime" (June 26) incorrectly stated that former Gov. Gray Davis said that murderers would leave prison during his term only "in a pine box." Although others have characterized his policy in this way, Davis did not actually make this remark. In addition, the article incorrectly stated that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger "is on exactly the same page" as Davis when it comes to releasing murderers. Schwarzenegger, in fact, has granted parole to 84 convicted murderers whose sentences made them eligible for release, whereas Davis
Meanwhile, it took more than five years for the state corrections department to act on its own 1999 report urging the creation of an internal task force to assess elder healthcare needs and identify what training corrections officers will require to meet them. Again, no new programs are imminent.
"We need to look at different correctional strategies that have worked for other states," says John Dovey, chief deputy director of the corrections department. "We're looking at a monumental task in dealing with our elderly."
Proposition 66, an attempt to soften the three-strikes law led by Joe Klass, grandfather of the Petaluma girl whose murder by a chronic recidivist stoked the original legislation, failed at the polls last November, losing by 5.4%--634,000 votes--after Gov. Schwarzenegger rallied at the last minute for the opposition. But reform efforts are still alive. State Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) recently introduced a bill that would reduce the three-strikes prison population through new sentencing guidelines.
"The goal needs to be public safety, not the psychological satisfaction that someone is being punished for a crime," says Ryan King of The Sentencing Project. "If California continues to admit 1,200 three-strikes felons annually, by 2026 there will be 30,000 third-strike inmates serving sentences of 25 to life at the cost of $750 million a year."
And the state will pick up the entire tab for their healthcare, just as it does for wheelchair-bound Corona inmates Norma Jean Jackson and Carol Hargis, both of whom have served more than 25 years on their seven-to-life sentences. Both women have also lost bids for compassionate release. The 74-year-old Jackson suffers from the effects of a stroke, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. Hargis, 64, is dying of chronic pulmonary disease.
The California Medical Facility is a prison compound off a two-lane road on the fringes of Vacaville, a quiet town 30 minutes from Sacramento. Visitors who roll down their windows might get a whiff of cow as they pass dairy barns en route to what looks more like a dilapidated office park than a place of healing. Inside, leaking pipes hang duct-taped to the ceiling and to wall after cracked wall--except in one special hallway where automatic double doors swing open. To cross the threshold from the prison into the hospice is to go from Kansas to Oz.
It's New Year's Eve, and a lighted Christmas tree stands by the visitors room, which is decorated with paintings by inmates, mostly pastorals, and drawings by schoolchildren. Metal bars are hidden behind the window shutters. More nurses than guards patrol the rooms, where occupants either watch TV or just stare the stare of the very sick.
Frank Parker wears a bright orange jacket marked Sight Impaired as he wanders behind his three-pronged cane from bed to bed, saying hello, changing the channels, delivering gossip from the units and offering comfort to the dying.
"He's a real sweetheart. Really helpful, really kind," says prison chaplain Keith Knauf.
Now 72, Parker is serving 15-to-life for murdering a man who he believed was having an affair with his wife. His time in prison, 20 years and counting, has not been easy on him--or on taxpayers. So far, doctors have treated Parker for three strokes and two heart attacks. His surgeries include heart bypass, knee replacement and cataract, which left him blind in one eye. Parker gulps down 15 pills a day. He has been denied both parole and compassionate release while racking up, by his count, more than $1 million in treatment.
If he were released, Parker says he would return to his home in Northern California and let the federal Veterans Administration pick up his medical bills. "I can't blame anybody but myself for being here," he says. "I don't want to be a burden to no one. Who in the world am I going to hurt, an old, crippled man like me?"